Al Buhr

Here is part two of Sage ambassador Al Buhr’s guide to popping for Steelhead. Click here to see part one.

Reading a rise can be telling in what to do next. Solid hook-ups are like a free pass, making life simple. However, solid hook-ups only account for 20 to 40 percent of surface rises. A fish rising and missing the fly can be for countless reasons and can be a little mysterious. It can be frustrating to have a fish rise with a tightly closed mouth, content on drowning the fly, but it happens. In contrast, shark attacks and leaping explosions happen, too. The core task is to observe fish rise and decide to either come back with the popper or change to a small wet fly on the next cast. In any technique, surface or wet fly, there are subtle aspects that are mastered with use that make great gains. Use the visual response by the fish to your advantage. Read the rise, judge how the fish is responding and adjust the comeback to get the hook-up.

With a surface fly, observing a short rise is obvious most of the time. In contrast, a wet fly is more difficult to detect a short take, and is easy to pass over, undetected. So, when working a surface fly, plan for the short rises as a part of the game. Accept the likely odds that around 7 out of 10 rises will be short and factor in a preplan. Counter missed rises with a comeback plan to improve the outcome.

My check list in a comeback game plan:

To help reduce a possible short take, once the boil initiates (the first appearance of a rise), immediately lower the rod to slack the line, allowing the fly to move with the current. This takes focus to do prior to the fish contacting the bug. Mastering the drop of the rod just as the rise initiates, will distantly lower the number of short takes and up the kill rate.

If a fish rises and misses the fly, wait a two-count (two seconds), and give the bug a crisp pop. This can provoke a second attack on this initial swing. If not, resume the beat of skating and popping and then carefully retrieve the bug.

After a short rise, wait for one to two minutes before returning a cast to rest the fish, the longer the better.

Don’t move from your position or change the line length. The initial rise is the most likely place for the next encounter. If the fish fails to rise on the second attempt, in the next cast shorten the line length four feet, and then follow by extending four feet. Shortening and extending line will search for a fish that may have submerged to a new location.

Give some thought as to how the fish came to the fly. Was the fly missed during the attempt or was it a refusal? Judging how a fish boils will help define between a responsive fish missing the fly, from a ‘one-trick-pony’ that only comes once. With experience in observing boils, intuition will become instinctive as to when to move on with the next cast to seek the next fish.

Consider changing the fly during a rest period. Change the size or shape of the surface bug or switch to a wet fly.

If the second rise is also short, start the process over, rest the fish and consider a fly change. Change the bug size or tie on a wet; or move from a wet back to the surface bug. Shift from popping to ‘walk-the-dog’. Changing tactics or the fly will help foster interest from the fish to come back

Have patience. Some fish can come several to many times, ending either in a hook-up or stop rising.

Keeping the fly pattern simple can help improve the odds in getting solid takes. There are many steelhead surface patterns, each having some claim to fame or magical powers. Fly choice is personal; it can be a source of innovation, or ineffective glitter. A skating surface fly can be open to variations, whereas a popping bug has more specific performance needs that dictate pattern construction. Not all surface flies excel at popping. To extract what is function and what is glitter, its best to list some core requirements of a good performing popping bug:

The body needs to be buoyant, and remain floating all day

The fly will chug when popped, not dive, sink or act neutral.

The fly will skate in all water types, staying up in fast, medium or slow current flows.

The fly will skate from either river bank without having to shift the riffle-hitch accordingly.

The fly should not have any part (wing, legs, body or tail) in excess that would impede the hook point from sticking.

The fly should have a relatively small size. A smaller bug will invoke more multi or repetitive strikes on a given swing or in a comeback situation.

In a search for the best functional popping bug, I have consistently found patterns with a tapered cigar or torpedo-shaped body best. A cigar-tapered body has a uniform shape (from all angles) and tends to skate in nearly all water types (fast, medium, slow), even if driven under the surface by the initial cast. The round tapered body will skate from right or left banks without extra care to the side the riffle-hitch is tied. This is not proper riffle-hitch technique, but works and is simple. When using a ‘walk-the-dog’ retrieve, a more blunt-ended torpedo shaped bug can work well without the need of a hitch.

Moose hair, packed tight when tied, or neoprene foam (weather stripping) will reliably float for an extended time. Moose is very durable and easy to clip the body shape. Foam is simple and quick to tie. A moose hair ‘Buck bug’ is modest and works good for popping. A simple neoprene foam body with legs works well for a ‘walk-the-dog’ approach. Both patterns are simplistic in form and function, with a good reliable performance that lasts all day.

A trick I use to improve the solid hook-up ratio is to twist the hook bend, tilting the hook point off to the side. Occasionally a hook will break, so this is best done before tying the fly. To twist the hook: grip the hook point parallel with the shank, and then grip the shank (if hook is bare) or fly body. Twist carefully, turning to point about 10 degrees to one side. When fishing the fly, use a riffle-hitch, tying the hitch to the side the hook point cants. This is important; tie the hitch in to align with the hook point. With the hitch tightened, the canted hook point and leader (knotted to the side of the bug) will align (when tensioned). With the hook point and leader in alignment, penetration is easy. Moreover, with the hook point canted, the point is exposed and not concealed under the fly body. By having the hook point canted with the hitch aligning the leader, the fly is lethal. When a fish grabs the fly, it’s hooked. The odds just got better.

In my observations, popping invokes an instinctive predator reaction. A strike can come from any commotion of the bug; either the initial cast, or as it works across. As a strategic aspect, defining where and how the cast and popping is presented can provoke or compel a strike to happen. The strategic aspect of compelling a fish to strike is one element in the game. A bug chugging across the surface radiates a compulsive and spontaneous attitude, giving a ‘spaghetti western’ spin to the game; anything can happen. What sparks a steelhead to rise also draws other fish to strike. A wide range of fish: trout, smallmouth bass, whitefish and coarse fish, will attack a popping bug. It is an added bonus; anything that swims is fair game.

To some extent there is a level of expectation and uncertainty in each cast. There is expectation of a rise, yet unclear as to what will rise and how the rise will happen. Expectation, infused with uncertainty, makes popping a compelling obsession. At a minimum, popping will test personal preconceived notions to presenting a fly to steelhead. It’s all good.

Al is an avid steelhead fly fisher in the Northwest, and associated with Sage for many years. He enjoys teaching fly casting, is a FFF certified Master, certified THCI, and FFF Board of Governor.